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President Trump, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have a new problem on their hands. The new Saudi energy minister, Abdulaziz bin Salman, said this morning that the kingdom, which needs nuclear power for electricity, wants to enrich its own uranium. US policymakers must beware of Saudi Arabia’s new ambition to enrich uranium. While this could be a step toward generating nuclear power for electricity, it can also be a step toward weaponizing uranium for nuclear weapons.
Under President Trump, the United States has formed a general partnership with Saudi Arabia, fixing the bonds that were tested during the Bush and Obama administrations. The US and Saudi Arabia have similar regional goals, particularly with regard to preventing the nuclear ambitions of Iran and stopping terrorism in the region. A relationship blossomed under Secretary Perry and the previous Saudi energy minister, Khaled al Falih, because the two had previously established ties and shared an alma mater, Texas A&M.
Saudi Arabia has long hinted that it sought to mine its own uranium and enrich it domestically, but no one from the government had ever admitted this so bluntly as Prince Abdulaziz did this morning. The Saudis believe they have large uranium deposits, but it would still be cheaper for them to import it in the current market. The Saudis probably lack the native talent to enrich the uranium, but they would probably hire Pakistani or Russian engineers. So, this announcement should leave the rest of the world perplexed about why they want to mine and enrich uranium instead of just buying it like most countries do.
Now, it must be understood that Saudi Arabia absolutely needs to build nuclear power plants for electricity. Currently, the kingdom burns natural gas and oil to obtain almost all of its electricity. This is expensive and a waste of natural resources that could better be used for sale. Moreover, natural gas and oil are carbon fuels that pollute the environment. Also, Saudi Arabia is projected to run out of these carbon fuels in about 70 years. But Saudi Arabia cannot use coal and hydropower, which make up more than half of the world’s electricity generation, because they lack coal and rivers. Solar and wind technology is not yet sufficient to serve as baseload producers. As a result, Saudi Arabia must produce nuclear power—and it will.
But should Saudi Arabia really be enriching uranium? Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. Who will run Saudi Arabia in five, 10 or 50 years? We don’t know, and we don’t know what this man’s priorities will be. Saudi Arabia is undergoing rapid economic change, and this can lead to unpredictability. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is in the middle of the Middle East with all of its turmoil. It is currently engaged in a military conflict with neighboring Houthi rebels in Yemen and in diplomatic quarrels with Qatar and Iran. It would be a bad example for countries like the US, UK and others to allow Saudi Arabia to become a nuclear power without resistance.
The US administration, along with the UK, France and others, should consider all options to halt Saudi Arabia’ s nuclear ambitions before it has committed to anything more than just rhetoric. An immediate response from a high-ranking American official is necessary. One of the leaders mentioned above should speak with the Saudis right away in response to the new energy minister’s comments.
The US need not threaten Saudi Arabia. A warning could be enough. The US could gently remind Saudi Arabia that: 1- it could suspend weapons sales to the Saudis; 2- it could end student visas for Saudi engineering students; 3- if necessary, it could sanction individual Saudi leaders or Saudi Arabia itself if it insists on enriching uranium. Saudi Arabia has seen the damage done by sanctions to its enemy neighbor, Iran. Hopefully, just the threat of a public rift between the White House and Saudi monarchy could be enough to compel Saudi Arabia rethink its reckless plans.
But President Trump and his administration should act now, if they haven’t already.